When it comes to the underappreciated chenin blanc, no place in the world is as important as Vouvray in France’s Loire Valley, which sets a standard by which all other examples of the grape are judged. The wines are made in a wide range of styles from dry to sweet, but if there is a signature Vouvray it is “demi-sec,” or semi-dry, which may or may not appear on the label. As with most French wines, the consumer is often left to know what’s in the bottle and, in the case of Vouvray, just how dry or sweet a wine is. These days, that is changing slightly in Vouvray, where the driest, or “sec” wines, can now be called that only if they have less than nine grams of residual sugar.
Both styles match well with a variety of foods, as I was reminded at a recent dinner that featured the wines at Craft, a New York restaurant, that was sponsored by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau. How much variety? Beyond an assortment of appetizers (served with two sparkling Vouvrays), there was a first course of charcuterie and two kinds of oysters; a second course of hamachi and quail; a main course of striped bass, guinea hen, asparagus and Hen of the Woods mushrooms, and an Asian pear-apple crisp for dessert. Except for the dessert, each course was served with both a dry and a semi-dry Vouvray and it was up to the assembled writers and members of the wine trade to to decide which style worked better with each part of the dinner (the pie was served with two sweet Vouvrays). As you might imagine, there was little agreement.
I found myself leaning toward the drier wines, and several of them stood out, starting with Didier Champalou’s very dry, fresh and lively Vouvray Brut, which is priced well at $18. Pierre Chainier’s 2009 Clos de Nouys Sec, $20, matched beautifully with the hamachi and quail, the latter cooked to perfection medium rare. The wine’s minerality and green apple notes emerged as it warmed up a bit. Another standout was François Chidaine’s 2009 Vouvray “Les Argiles,” a $23 wine I have enjoyed for many years. Made from biodynamically grown grapes and fermented with indigenous yeasts, it showed the delicacy and depth for which Chidaine has become justly famous.
The evening’s real treat was from the region’s most celebrated producer, Domaine Huet’s 2005 Vouvray Moelleux “Close du Bourg 1ere Trie.” This amber-colored sweet wine, $75, has a nose that can be described, without overstating it, as incredible, a complex and concentrated blend that included orange rind, honey and mocha supported by a firm acid structure that made it altogether refreshing for all its sweetness. While it seemed made for the pear-apple crisp, the pie was almost an afterthought. The wine was a memorable dessert on its own – and will be so for years to come.